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Obama Has Learned Nothing

The White House plows ahead.

10:11 AM, Feb 9, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Mark Halperin says David Brooks's column today "cracks the code of the Obama White House."

What does the decrypt reveal? Here's what:

The atmosphere in the White House appears surprisingly tranquil. Emanuel is serving as a lighting rod for the president but remains crisply confident in his role as chief of staff. It’s true that several top administration officials did not want to attempt comprehensive health care reform this year. But they are not opening recrimination campaigns. It’s no secret that many think the president needs to be more assertive with Congress, yet administration officials still talk about Obama in awestruck tones, even in private.

Some would say the administration is underreacting to the incredible shift in the public mood. Some would say they need more voices from the great unwashed. But no one could accuse them of panicking, or of scrambling about incoherently. In their first winter of discontent, they are offering continuity and comity. Whatever their relations with the country might be, inside they seem unruffled. The bonds of association, from the top down, seem healthy — especially for a bunch of Democrats.

Hence Obama's decision to re-litigate health care reform even though public opposition brought his plan to a standstill in Congress; even though he said in the State of the Union that his "number one focus" was jobs; even though his approval ratings began falling precipitously at the moment when health care took center stage in the national debate. His post-State of the Union bounce is gone: Marist pegs Obama's job approval at 47 percent. Rasmussen also has it at 47 percent.

Many of us expected the White House to pivot to the center after Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts. In hindsight, that expectation seems laughable. And the reason a pivot now seems fantastic is Obama. His estimation of his powers of persuasion is so high, he truly believes he will be able to best the Republicans, sway public opinion, and force a final vote on health care -- and all through more talk!

Who will tell him he's making a mistake? Not his functionaries at the White House. Brooks says "administration officials still talk about Obama in awestruck tones, even in private."

Note to White House staffers who are willing to express contrary opinions: you may want to read John B. Judis. He may not be a "nihilist," but he gets it nonetheless:

The last two Democratic presidents faced similar problems. After the Democrats were rebuked in the 1978 midterms, Jimmy Carter took exactly the wrong course. He replaced mediocre people with even more mediocre people. He allowed intramural squabbles to surface. He lost his focus and ended up blaming the American people for his political problems. Clinton, who had governed his first year as a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law graduate, rediscovered after November 1994 that he had been a successful governor of Arkansas. He governed for the next six years as the president of Middle America, in spite of a furious attempt by Republicans to impeach him.

"Obama doesn’t seem, like Clinton or Reagan, to be a man of many faces," Judis concludes. No, he does not. And his inability to adapt to changing political circumstances is going to leave him and his party in a lurch. Like Washington, the White House is snowed in. Only a major shock to the system -- something on par with the 1994 or 2006 elections -- will force it to break out the shovels, clear a path, and reconnect with the public. And by that point, it may be too late.

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